Every year, the Berlin International Film Festival plays host to some of the richest and most rewarding cinematic works of the year. In 2019, the festival screened Joanna Hogg’s lacerating “The Souvenir” after its Sundance premiere, as well as the slept-on fever dream that was “Monos,” and Nadav Lapid’s widely acclaimed “Synonyms,” the closing night film that also happened to take home the Golden Bear award. And those are just three of the more recognizable titles that played at the Berlinale – we haven’t even mentioned the profusion of slept-on international and arthouse titles that also screened there last year.
Obviously, Berlin often gets overshadowed by the flashier events like Cannes and Venice – which is somewhat understandable, when one considers the degree of prestige afforded to those two aforementioned international festivals. However, that should do nothing to diminish that Berlin has consistently acted as a launching pad for some of the year’s most artful, daunting, challenging, and beautiful films. And Berlin 2020 is looking to be a doozy, featuring new films from Christian Petzold, Kelly Reichardt, Abel Ferrara, Pixar (we know!), and much, much more.
Without further ado… here are 12 films that we are really looking forward to at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Director: Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”)
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
What You Need To Know: With “Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love,” Eliza Hittman has staked her claim as one of American cinema’s foremost humanist filmmakers. The director’s winning streak continues with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a wrenching and compassionate slice of social realism about a young woman who embarks on a trek from Pennsylvania to New York to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Hittman has proven herself to be an intrinsically sensitive and empathic storyteller who is particularly attuned to the pains of being young and female, and this could be the first of her films to crossover to a non-independent audience – certainly, if the rave notices out of Sundance are anything to go by (our own review called it Hittman’s “strongest work to date”), then “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” could stand to be one of the major indie dramas of 2020.
Director: Damien Chazelle (“La La Land,” “First Man”), plus Houda Benyamina, Laila Marrakchi, and Alan Poul
Cast: Andre Holland, Joanna Kulig, Tahar Rahim, Amandla Stenberg
What You Need To Know: “The Eddy,” an eight-episode musical drama for Netflix, is easily one of the most high-profile titles premiering as part of this year’s Berlinale Series. There are a million reasons to be excited about this one: it was shot on 16mm, the musical numbers were recorded live, it offers a lead platform to one of our finest actors, Andre Holland, etc. “The Eddy” was also partially directed by Damien Chazelle, who has cemented his fascination with jazz, melodrama, and period projects in films as varied as “Whiplash,” his Oscar-winning “La La Land,” and his scrappy debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” “The Eddy” will also feature the tremendous talents of “Cold War” showstopper Joanna Kulig, as well as “Une Prophete’s” Tahar Rahim, who doesn’t work nearly as much as he should. Word is that “The Eddy” will introduce a criminal narrative to this otherwise ritzy milieu, making it one of the can’t-miss events of this year’s festival.
Director: Christian Petzold (“Transit”)
Cast: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Gloria Endres de Oliveira, Jacob Matschenz
What You Need To Know: This writer felt that Christian Petzold’s “Transit” was one of the finest and most haunting films of 2019, but let us not forget that this director has been cranking out masterful slow-burn dramas (“Barbara” and “Jerichow” are both worth seeking out) since long before “Phoenix” introduced him to American audiences. “Undine,” which takes its title from a piece of arcane aquatic mythology, sees the director making a pivot into a more melancholic, fantastical register, while nevertheless maintaining the intoxicating classicism that he is renowned for. “Undine” will reunite Petzold with “Transit” leads Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski for a fairy tale set in modern-day Berlin. The director has said that “Undine” is a film about “how love develops and remains,” and given Petzold’s relationship to Berlin itself (he lived and studied in the German capital in the early 1980s), it only makes sense that “Undine” is premiering in competition there.
Director: Abel Ferrara (“Bad Lieutenant,” “Pasolini”)
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Cristina Chiriac
What You Need To Know: Former New York troublemaker Abel Ferrara is enjoying a particularly rich period of his career at present, cranking out loose, intimate, character-driven works like “Tommaso,” as well as his terrific, radical biopic, “Pasolini.” “Siberia” sounds like one of the bad boy auteur’s most experimental works to date: it’s the first time Ferrara has ventured into the world of crowdfunding, and the screenwriting process behind the film sounds out-there, even for this particular filmmaker (Carl Jung’s “The Red Book” allegedly served as a prime source of inspiration). “Siberia,” which reunites Ferrara with longtime friend and collaborator Willem Dafoe, looks to build upon the dream-like reveries that distinguished “Pasolini.” Whether it ends up being an audacious failure or one of the director’s great works remains to be seen, but any new Abel Ferrara is worth getting excited about in 2020 – especially when the result sounds as daring as this one does.
“The Salt of Tears”
Director: Philippe Garrel (“L’enfant Secret”)
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, Andre Wilms, Souheila Yacoub
What You Need To Know: Many readers of this site will be familiar with the name Philippe Garrel: the Garrels are French filmmaking royalty, and Phillipe is an essential figure in the second tier of the French New Wave movement. “The Salt of Tears” is the director’s first feature since 2017’s “Lover for a Day,” and it sounds like a poignant and evocative romance that is very much within this filmmaker’s wheelhouse. Logann Antuofermo stars as Luc, a carpentry student in Paris caught in between two different women and the craft to which he’s devoted his life. Garrel has remained a singular, essential voice in our modern world cinema landscape, and if “The Salt of Tears” turns out to be a triumph for the prolific director, it might just have a shot at this year’s coveted Golden Bear. In any case, this is one we’ll definitely be buying a ticket for, although a U.S. release date has yet to be confirmed.
“My Little Sister”
Director: Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond
Cast: Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller
What You Need To Know: Oftentimes at film festivals, the most rewarding films you see are the ones that fly under the radar, unburdened by an excess of hype or star power. We’re certainly hoping this is the case with “The Little Sister,” also titled “Schwesterlein,” the latest work from directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond (the film also stars the great Nina Hoss, who has proven to be consistently mesmerizing in her collaborations with Christian Petzold). Chuat and Reymond haven’t directed a film since 2010’s unassuming “The Little Bedroom,” but “The Little Sister” sounds like another understated, observant drama from these talented filmmakers. The story of a Berlin-based playwright and her ailing thespian brother, “The Little Sister” has been described in the Berlinale press notes as a “fairy tale, with two adults as Hansel and Gretel,” which is nothing if not a fascinating description. The film promises viewers a tale of siblinghood, illness, and life as theater, and if it’s a hit, it could stand to be one of the low-key triumphs of this year’s festival.
Director: Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Certain Women”)
Cast: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Ewen Bremner, Alia Shawkat, Toby Jones
What You Need To Know: It’s no secret that we here at The Playlist are fans of Kelly Reichardt: she’s one of those distinctly American cinematic poets who we’re willing to follow wherever she may venture. “First Cow” is Reichardt’s first collaboration with A24: it’s a rambling frontier buddy comedy about a cook and a Chinese immigrant who join forces to make delicious baked goods, thus forging a business partnership as well as an unexpected alliance. “First Cow” sees Reichardt returning to a period milieu for the first time since her masterpiece, “Meek’s Cutoff,” and while our own review was somewhat cool on the film, the general critical consensus indicates that Reichardt has done it again and crafted another work that could have only come from her. Reichardt is a filmmaker who has always marched to the beat of her own drum, and our cinemagoing landscape is a richer place with her in it – in any case, we’re hoping Berlin crowds warm up to the film, which sees a stateside release on March 6.
Director: Dan Scanlon (“Monster’s University”)
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
What You Need To Know: We know what you’re thinking: what is a Pixar movie doing playing at one of the biggest international film festivals in the world? Obviously, Pixar is a part of the increasingly ubiquitous Disney monoculture, but that doesn’t change the fact that the studio is also responsible for some of the finest animated films of our time (“Inside Out,” “Wall-E,” the “Toy Story” films… we could go on). Pixar’s latest offering is “Onward,” which will be playing out of competition at Berlin. While we are as surprised as anyone at the inclusion of this title, it could very well mean that the studio knows they have something special on their hands. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt lead an all-star cast in a tale about two teenage elf brothers who embark on a rollicking quest to bring their father back to life. It’s a black sheep entry to be sure, but we’re hoping that “Onward” contains the alchemy of brains, heart, and humor that has always made Pixar stand out from the crowd.
“The Woman Who Ran”
Director: Hong Sang-soo (“Right Now, Wrong Then”)
Cast: Min-hee Kim, Eun-mi Lee, Seon-mi Song, Young-hwa Seo
What You Need To Know: It’s no secret that Korean cinema is having a moment in the aftermath of “Parasite’s” historic Best Picture win, and while the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook are well-known to many American cinephiles, Hong Sang-soo is another South Korean auteur worth keeping an eye on. That said, Hong is hardly a novice filmmaker: he has upwards of twenty directorial credits to his name, and his thoughtful 2015 film “Right Now, Wrong Then” took the top prize at the 68th Locarno International Film Festival. Hong is interested in people and what makes them tick, and his latest, “The Woman Who Ran,” sees this seasoned minimalist filmmaker in top form. The Berlinale program compares Hong’s latest to the work of Anton Chekov, which is certainly music to our ears, and hopefully, reason enough for discerning American audiences to take a chance on a more obscure title that might otherwise get lost in the festival shuffle.
Director: Tim Sutton (“Donnybrook,” “Dark Night”)
Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Dela Meskienyar, Jonny Lee Miller, Victor Garber, Rhea Perlman, Dan Hedaya
What You Need To Know: Tim Sutton’s scorching rust belt thriller “Donnybrook” was one of 2019’s most intense movies (our own review called it “a brutal elegy for those living on the forgotten fringes of America”). Sutton has always had a talent for fusing hard-hitting social issues with blunt-force genre movie kicks, and for his next directorial outing, the rising filmmaker will transition from the American heartland to his home base of Brooklyn, New York. “Funny Face” tells the story of Saul and Zama: two “orphans of unchecked capitalism” who meet in a bodega one night and soon find themselves facing off against a wealthy developer. We’re excited to see Sutton direct his version of a romance – particularly one that examines gentrification and income inequality in the distinctly grim and arresting key that has become this promising young director’s stock-in-trade. We here at The Playlist have been flying the flag for Sutton for a while now, and “Funny Face” sounds both comfortably within the director’s wheelhouse and also, perhaps, like a welcome maturation, of sorts.
“My Salinger Year”
Director: Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie,” “Chuck”)
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Colm Feore
What You Need To Know: Margaret Qualley has proved to be a formidable screen presence in works as varied as HBO’s “The Leftovers,” Shane Black’s retro buddy farce “The Nice Guys,” and Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Tinseltown throwback “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.” That said, Qualley has almost always been relegated to a supporting role, and she’s long overdue for her turn in the spotlight. Thankfully, the dynamic young actress is front and center in “My Salinger Year,” playing an aspiring writer tasked with answering fan mail for reclusive literary genius J.D. Salinger. The film takes Joanna Rakoff’s wistful memoir of the same name as its source material, fashioning a trenchant tale out of the life of a budding scribe. Honestly, “My Salinger Year” would be worth seeing just to witness Qualley and Sigourney Weaver occupying the same scene together. Thankfully, there’s a lot else going for this project, which is playing as part of the Berlinale Special Gala
“The Roads Not Taken”
Director: Sally Potter (“Ginger & Rosa,” “The Party”)
Cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney
What You Need To Know: The latest human drama from great director Sally Potter promises to be one of the more star-studded efforts playing in competition at this year’s Berlinale. “The Roads Not Taken” stars Javier Bardem as Leo: an older man with a grown daughter (played by Fanning) whose journey through modern-day New York takes on a hallucinatory quality as he begins to consider all the lives he could have lived. To paraphrase the film’s hypnotic trailer, Potter’s latest is about a man who sets off on a long voyage and encounters one obstacle after another. We’re definitely excited to see Potter work with a cast like this (she’s something of a familiar face in Berlin; her last film, “The Party,” also screened there). Bardem, who has long been one of our finest actors, has been keeping a low profile as of late (he was excellent in last year’s Asghar Farhadi-directed “Everybody Knows”), and Potter’s nuanced character study will no doubt be worth seeing for his lead performance alone.
As with any worthwhile festival, there’s plenty playing at Berlin this year beyond the titles we’ve just described. Guillaume Brac’s “A l’abordage” could prove to be one of the crossover international hits of this year’s festival. Brac’s film depicts a man and a woman meeting cute in Paris, before a family obligation disrupts their budding relationship, prompting the man to embark on a road trip with an unsuspecting friend so that he may crash her vacation. If nothing else, “A l’abordage” will be worth seeing for Brac’s intriguing decision to pair first-time performers with classically trained theater actors. Also worth seeking out is Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern’s “Delete History,” another French effort (this one’s a drama) about three suburban neighbors grappling with the larger ramifications of their social media-saturated existence.
The Italian/Swiss joint effort “Bad Tales,” described as “a choral story set within a middle-class community of the Lazio suburbs,” is notable for the fact that the film’s directors (who also happen to be fraternal twins) are the youngest directors to ever screen in competition at the festival. Also on the Italian side of things, Matteo Garrone’s fantasy “Pinocchio,” starring Roberto Benigni, will be screening in the Special Gala category. If nothing else, that film could prove to be a more lighthearted effort from the man who previously gave the world “Gomorrah” and “Dogman.” Johannes Naber’s “Curveball,” about the German secret service’s involvement in the Iraq War, will also be playing as part of the Berlin Special Gala series.
Elsewhere, Vanessa Lapa’s “Speer Goes to Hollywood” should prove to be an unsettling and informative doc on the infamous Nazi architect Albert Speer. Festival-goers looking for domestic titles that have already made a splash here in the states will want to seek out Kitty Green’s #MeToo/boss-from-hell drama “The Assistant” (which recently bowed at Sundance, check out our review here), and “Hillary,” Hulu’s original documentary about Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign.
Be sure to visit The Playlist regularly for more updates coming out of Berlin in the next few weeks.